Spring can be an emotionally challenging time of year for both seniors and their parents, given the anxiety that builds while students are waiting to hear back from colleges. By now, most, if not all, seniors have received admissions decisions from all of the colleges they applied to, and sometimes those admissions decisions are disappointing. An effective college list will typically include at least a few “reach” colleges to stretch students, which means that most students–even those who receive several acceptances that they are very happy with–are likely to feel the sting of rejection. Our intern, Ava, wrote an excellent blog last year exploring the emotions students may feel and responses they may have to application denials.
But parents can also feel a sting when their child is denied by a college, and they have a unique and important role in this process. We think that now is a good time to talk about parents' reactions and how parents can support their students during this emotionally charged season.
Acknowledge your own feelings (to yourself)
As a parent, you have probably been just as nervous about your student’s admissions decisions as they’ve been—perhaps more so. That is common and natural. As parents, we want the best for our children. We spend 18 years working hard to raise them to be the adults that we hope they will become, providing them with countless enrichment opportunities, in the hopes that one day they will be happy, healthy, and successful human beings, however we define those terms. As parents, we sometimes view the college that our child attends as the culmination of all that effort, the “brass ring” that we believe will set them up for success in life (and possibly give us cocktail-party bragging rights). Because parents’ emotional responses to admissions decisions can complicate their child’s response, we think that it is important for parents to examine their own feelings and acknowledge and accept them, without judgment. Once parents do that, they may find it easier to then set those feelings aside for the benefit of their child.
Listen and let your student set the tone
Give your child the space to talk about how they feel without trying to jump in and solve anything. This can be hard to do. Celebrate all “wins” (That’s great that you got into ABC College! You really earned it!), but let your child set the tone when it comes to the “losses.” You may feel devastated that your child wasn’t admitted to your alma mater or another college that you had your heart set on, but your child may feel differently. They may not take the denial as hard as you have because your first choice may not be their first choice; you may not have the same hopes and goals for them that they have. If your child doesn’t seem upset about a particular admissions decision and they are able to move on, follow their lead and move on, too.
Empathize without projecting disappointment
If your child is disappointed, let them know that you understand that they are disappointed, that you can see how much they wanted to attend that college, and that you are sorry that they weren’t admitted. Provide a shoulder that they can cry on, but avoid projecting your own feelings of disappointment or anger about the denial, which your child may internalize. They may believe that they have disappointed you and interpret your reaction as a failure on their part. They may hear the message that the college options that they do have aren’t good enough. While we parents are heavily invested in this process on many levels, ultimately, the most important person in this process is your child, and their admissions decisions—both acceptances and denials—are not a reflection of their worth (or your parenting).
It’s what you do when you get there
Whether your child got into the college that they feel is the best fit for them or they are sorting through their options not sure which direction to go, Frank Bruni’s classic book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, is worth reading. As the author points out, the college you attend neither guarantees a successful career nor will prevent you from having one. It’s what you do when you get there that matters. Graduate programs know this, and in fact, medical schools value academic performance over the brand name of the college. Employers value soft skills, such as leadership and teamwork, that are gained through internships, work experiences, and club involvement. Certain colleges don’t have a monopoly on career-related experiences; your child can get them on campus, off campus, and during the summer, regardless of what college they attend. What matters is working hard academically, getting involved in and out of the classroom, and looking for doors of opportunity and walking through them.
Visit colleges in April
Whether they were admitted to their first-choice college or are still deciding on their options, please visit the colleges that your child is most interested in, if you haven’t already. Most colleges host admitted-student days, which provide a perfect opportunity to tour the college and meet current and admitted students. Be open-minded and positive as you visit each campus. Listen to your child’s impressions without interjecting your own. If you have specific concerns, feel free to ask admissions representatives and current students.
No virtual information session or virtual campus tour can replicate the experience of being on a college campus and meeting the people who work and study there. Attending college is a major investment in time and money. By visiting, you will give your child the best chance of selecting the college that is right for them—and that college might surprise you.
Featured image (top): Storke Tower and the University Center from across the Lagoon at UC Santa Barbara. Photographed on September 8, 2019 by Coolcaesar at Wikimedia Commons